Wednesday, August 31

Bullying Followup #1

The trouble with writing constantly about teenagers as though they are people is that they inevitably talk back, also as if they are people, and then you have to have yourself a think. I got an amazing letter from a kid this week about the bullying stuff, heavily excerpted below, and apparently my response to her response went over well, which is good. Mostly, I was just amazed at my own blind spots, which is always gratifying.

...I don't really know if this is something even appropriate to even do, but they don't have a comments section for the recaps and there's something on my mind regarding your recap that's been bugging me a lot. As a disclaimer, I'm really sorry if this is something that's not acceptable to do or anything, but then again... you wouldn't put your email for the public to see online if you didn't want people to email you. Before you freak out, I'm not creepy or anything I promise... I'm just a fan of your recaps on and I read something tonight and I don't know what to make of it.
"If you're going to be the kind of person who gets bullied, and you can't handle it, you need to stop being that person."
I don't buy [this] at all ... really want to understand what you're saying here because I think it could really mean something to me if I understood it.
For the past three years of high school I've been bullied. It's not obvious bullying though, which is why my case, I think, is kind of an exception to some of your argument. I am a genuinely nice person and I get bullied for it. I get harassed because I'm too nice of a person to defend myself when others make fun of me. When there's a disagreement I find it easier to just go along with whatever the other person wants because they should get what they want rather than causing a huge scene. When people make fun of me, I don't defend myself because I don't want to make the other person feel unhappy... I just take it because I'm a good person and I don't want to create a big deal out of it. That's just the person that I am.

...You say that whatever I'm being bullied for I should change. How can I change my disposition to be nice? Maybe I'm interpreting your argument wrong. I just feel really unclear and I hope that maybe you could do me the favor of clarifying that.

Once again, I'm sorry if I seem really stupid or if this is inappropriate... I don't mean to be annoying. I just really want to know what you meant because it's bugging me.

I mean, what do you say? Obviously a sweet kid, a smart kid. A girl who deserves applause for not just plugging her ears when she got to a part that sounded like bullshit, which is more than 99% of us are willing to do. I just kind of stared at the screen for awhile and wondered how much and what kind of danger this neat girl's fire was really in. Trying not to count the apologies, qualifiers, passive-voice and the rest of it like I was going to serve her an itemized list at the end of our conversation.

Because the kind of person who takes that statement apart -- and I'll grant, the original ranterview was a little on the unstructured side, because I was trying to leapfrog questions and draw an emotional through-line -- and honestly asks, "Are you being a dick or what am I missing," well, that's the kind of person I want reading my writing. You know? Almost entirely 100% of the time, an email asking for "clarification" is really just being passive-aggressive and calling you out without actually doing it. But not this lady, no. So I was cowed, and maybe that's why the reply was blunt, but I thought either way it was worth preserving here, since the bullying thing seemed like such a valid conversation the first time around, last week:

I think that where the problem comes in is that we have different definitions of being "nice." I'm not saying this applies to you, necessarily, but I will tell you about my friend [J]. He is smart, and strong, and I admire him in a lot of ways, but he has a lot of problems about being "nice." 

Everybody wants people to like them, of course. (I do too, probably more than most people.) But what I see J doing is thinking that by not having an opinion of his own, or by being quiet when he shouldn't be quiet, or agreeing with things that he doesn't agree with, it short-circuits in the end. He is resentful, because he gave away his own power -- and it didn't even work! People don't like him more because he is quiet, they don't like him any more because he agreed with them, and they certainly don't like it when he comes out resenting things after the fact. 

He's very interested in being The Good Guy. The guy that doesn't make waves, the guy that doesn't make people angry or disagree with them, even when they're wrong. The guy who knows the right answer, but doesn't always say it because it would make other people feel stupid. I know he feels bullied. I know he feels bullied personally by me, because I don't know if you know this but I can be kind of intense, and that's a bad mix. I am not a very good friend to J, at all, which is especially gross considering how much I love him. But also, it wouldn't matter, because he's already gotten himself into that position most of the day. Sometimes just asking him to form an opinion makes him feel bullied -- because he doesn't want to be the Bad Guy  who said No.

That's not being nice, in my opinion. That's being weak. That's holding your own image of yourself as the Good Guy, or the Nice Girl, above relating honestly with other people. I think that a lot of our society, and the ways we are raised, give us the idea that not having opinions, or never saying no, is the way to make people like you. 

But you know that this isn't true. You wrote to me that it isn't true. It isn't working.

What I see is a situation where you get to be the Good Guy, because you're "always nice," and if it doesn't work out -- that's everybody else's problem. You don't ever have to risk disappointing anybody, or getting anybody mad, or starting any confrontations, because you're always being "nice." There's nothing for them to get mad at!

Our culture raises us, especially young women, to think they're doing the right thing when we do this. That Nice Girls are good, and Not-Nice Girls are bad. But the definition of "Nice" that is used for that idea is really gross, and wrong, and old-fashioned, and nasty. It's designed to make you hate yourself, and to keep you small, and to keep you quiet. 

And then you get the reward, for following along: You get to be the victim, because you didn't offer your opinion and they didn't ask. You get to feel like you have the moral upper hand, because you're "nice" and everybody else is not-nice. You're the winner. You're the victim.

And what I was writing about in the recap is the idea that any time you see yourself as the Victim, you need to stop what you're doing and look at your own ability to change the situation. Because nobody ever makes us crawl, and nobody makes us feel bad without our consent. And I will tell you another thing, [Lady], and I hope that you don't think I'm being a jerk or that I don't understand:

Nobody was ever too kind. Nobody ever got bullied because they were too kind, nobody was ever victimized for their compassion. Ever. 

And what that means to me, is that you need to think about the difference between "nice" and "kind." "Nice" is passive and lazy and cowardly, and thinks only about itself. "Kind" is active and strong and thinks aboutother people. I think you should remove the word "nice" from your vocabulary for a little while, because my reply would be that -- whether or not you want to hear it -- you're not a special case: You're just like everybody else. 

We all were brainwashed to be "nice." We all were taught that we need other people to feel okay about ourselves. We all were taught that popularity is the most important thing, and that being "nice" is a good way to get there. But it's not true. None of it is true. You have to find a place of your own, to stand on. Even if it's just the ground underneath your feet, you have to know that you own it, and you don't owe anybody else for it. 

So yes, that is the thing you have to change about yourself, but it's just a dictionary definition in your head that needs to change: That "nice" is the opposite of "strong," and you're not any more "kind" than you would be otherwise. Nobody can be expected to respect you if you don't show respect for yourself, and that starts with having convictions and standing by them, showing character and strength, and remembering to be kind. You can do those things and still be true to yourself.

You are a smart person, and you have good intentions. It's nice to see you thinking, and curious, about this kind of stuff, and I hope you read these words in the spirit that they were written, because I'm not trying to be rude, or condescending or bossy or whatever. I am impressed that you wanted to get more into that sentence, it means a lot to me -- I hope this helped, whether or not you think I'm right about the rest of it. Good luck!


Moral of the story? Don't write me fanmail or you might get some words back, I suppose. Certainly her response was intensely gratifying on a whole other level. Either way, a helpful reminder that the shorthand you use throughout your mental day doesn't always come across -- and that's not really because people are lazy, or at least, not as often as you're/ I am apt to assume. It only makes you smarter when you get to go back and look at what you said and why, and fill in the gaps, but you often have no reason to do that. Unless, apparently, you're in the habit of corresponding with precocious young girls.